The Mighty Logo

The Analogy My Therapist Used to Help Me Cope With My Trauma

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

“Do you want to start where we left off last week?” said Ben, who had been my therapist for the past four years. When he handed me my usual cup of coffee, I connected eyes with him and knew he saw mine were red and puffy and tears were about to fall behind my smudged glasses.

• What is PTSD?

“What’s going on?” he asked gently.

“It’s just too much. All these thoughts. Trying to put things in order,” I said. I knew I was looking rough around the edges in my baggy sweats and a messy ponytail. It’d taken all the physical and emotional energy I had to get to his office.

“Are you still having paranoid thoughts?”

“Constant. Oh, wait. I forgot to power down my phone.” I turned my phone off and Ben waited for me to continue. “I don’t feel alone with my thoughts. I feel everything I do on my laptop, everything I write, everything I search for on the internet, everything I eat — that it’s all under surveillance. It’s exhausting trying to keep up an act where I think I’m being watched. I know I’m not doing anything wrong, but I’m waiting for the cops to come and the jury to be called to make me account for my wrongs during my life. It consumes me.”

“You’ve said it’s like you’re preparing for a trial,” said Ben.

“Yes, exactly. Like I’m on trial for my whole life. I imagine the jury has already judged me guilty, that I have to prove myself. That I have to explain myself for my behavior when I was raped and kidnapped. That I have to explain why I didn’t make better choices. That I have to be my own attorney and gather the documentation and material in an orderly fashion to be my own defense. I imagine myself in an orange jumper and flip flops and without access to my family. It’s frightening.”

“What does the logical, rational part of your mind tell you?” asked Ben.

“That no one’s watching me. I’m imagining all of this. That it’s a waste of time and energy. But I can’t get past it, Ben. It’s like an urge, an itch that has to be scratched. I spend vast amounts of time writing out timelines and events and writing out details of events and my reasons for making the decisions I did and accounting for my behaviors. And when I get to the ones I am not proud of — the things I am ashamed of — these are the things I feel the invisible jury is going to put me into prison for, for the rest of my life, unless I can present my case and justify my actions. I feel like I’m preparing my defense and I am under pressure to hurry it up.”

“Tell me about your timelines.”

“Oh, they change every time. Sometimes, I do my whole life from birth. Of course, my adolescent traumas, sexual traumas, kidnappings, exploitation. My marriages, divorces. Emotional abuse. Births, deaths. Sometimes I do a timeline solely of my depressive and manic episodes to compare them to the traumatic events. Sometimes I have to do a timeline of the week just to put a chain of events in order to make sense of things.”

“Does it seem to help? Does it help you make sense of things?” asked Ben.

“In ways. I guess if you take out my obsession to prepare for my life trial, it’s really about trying to make sense of my whole life, how the events of my life brought me to now and having a way to make sense of why I am like I am. Why I’m so sensitive to trauma. Why I have the challenges I do. Why I made some of the decisions I did. Why I failed at times. Putting it all in order seems to be the way to make peace with myself.”

“Have you found any peace doing this?”

I thought hard. It was silent for a good three minutes and Ben waited patiently. “No. I haven’t. Like I said, it’s an urge, an itch. But it’s never satisfied. Because of my traumas and my addiction history, there are some things in my life that are blank to me. Memories that will never be recovered. Missing pieces that might help me understand things better. I’m mad about that — that there are missing pieces in my mind, and sometimes I hope that one memory will jog another and help me find more answers.”

“And the peace?”

“No. No peace. Only more questions. Missing pieces. I feel an urgency to make my case. I feel compelled to write out my life story, but there are so many things that don’t make sense and it seems like a task that will take forever, but must be done or ill will befall me and my family.”

“What do you think will happen if you don’t remember everything or if you don’t make sense of everything?” asked Ben. Another question to make me think in silence for three minutes.

“When I’m in it, it feels like something really bad will happen. That I will die and my family won’t know my truth. That’s it, really. I want my family to know my truth. I want them to know how much I loved them, and how much their love means to me. I want them to know my story. I want them to know my journey, particularly because I live with mental illness and I want them to know it’s OK if they do, too, and it’s OK to talk about it and help each other through the struggles,” I said.

“You are already doing that, you know. Sharing your journey with them, raising awareness, working hard on your mental health so you can be present in their lives,” said Ben.

Ben’s encouragement only lifted me for a few moments. I sunk back in my chair. I liked that about Ben, that he was fine with silence. Finally, I spoke. “I can’t guarantee I’m not going home to work on my trial, you know. It’s hard to describe the urgency, even though my rational mind tells me it’s nonsense. It’s so frustrating not being able to put it all together, trying to make sense of why I’m here and the way I am and why I did things the way I did. I have to justify myself to God and the jury and the world.”

Ben surprised me by standing up. He went past me and over to his bookshelf in the corner by the children’s play area. He pulled a puzzle box off the top shelf. What surprised me even more was when he took the lid off the box and dumped all the pieces right on the floor!

“What’d you do that for?” I asked. I felt an analogy coming. Ben always had analogies.

“Here’s what you’re doing.” Ben scattered the pieces around with the toe of his shoe. “These pieces are the events in your life. Timeline events, memories. There are emotions attached to these pieces, and facts. The problem is…” He bent over and scooped up a handful of pieces and put them in his pocket. “You don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle so it’s never going to be finished.”

He took the lid of the box and turned it around so I couldn’t see the picture on the box of a peaceful sunset at the beach. “You don’t have the full picture. You can’t see what the final result is supposed to look like. No directions, only a faint idea of how things are supposed to fit. Plus, remember you don’t have all the pieces.” He took the pieces out of his pocket and put them on his desk.

“Good analogy, Ben.” His analogies always cheered me up. “Except let me add on to yours. My puzzle is not only missing pieces and a lid to show me direction, I think it’s missing end pieces and even has pieces from different puzzles that absolutely don’t fit!” We both chuckled.

“The question is whether you’re going to continue trying to get ready for your life trial by jury. You could be working on your puzzle for the rest of your life and still be going around in circles trying to fit the pieces together. Are you going to spend your time in fear and waiting or do you want to explore ways to get through this discomfort and back to the present?

“You know the answer,” I said. “How? Maybe there are little puzzles that fit together inside the bigger puzzle.” I took the puzzle box and started putting the pieces into it. Ben began helping me.

“Consider putting the timelines away for a while. They can be very useful in many situations, but for this, I think you’ve exhausted its helpfulness for now. You may want to talk to Sarah about your medications for an adjustment because of your paranoia.”

“I have one thing to add that just popped into my mind, Ben. I think your analogy is missing something.”

“What’s that?”

“I really only need one puzzle piece. For the now. For the present moment. That’s all I can really do anything about.”

“Here, take this.” Ben picked up a random puzzle piece, which just happened to be a corner piece. “Huh. Two ends are finished. How about that?” He handed it to me. “Keep it in your pocket, perhaps.”

It took months of working on my life trial obsession and paranoia issues with my therapist and adjusting my medications with my psychiatrist before I finally leveled out and wasn’t consumed with preparing for judgment by a biased jury. I let up on drawing out timelines and stayed away from reading old journal entries and gave up trying to “organize my photos by crises.”

Thinking of the puzzle analogy has continued to help me when I get frustrated managing my guilt and shame about the past, and my anxiety about the future. Having a trusted therapist with whom I have built a therapeutic alliance has been an important factor in my well-being. I hope the puzzle analogy will help someone else, and that my description of paranoia will help someone feel not so alone in their symptoms and give them hope that life is manageable.

You can follow Rebbie’s journey on Rebbie’s World.

Getty image by oatawa

Originally published: May 19, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home